Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

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David Greene
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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby David Greene » February 19th, 2016, 8:52 pm

I guess it depends on what you want. I enjoy taking the train, relaxing and watching the scenery. For me it is part of the trip/vacation. If I need to get somewhere fast I'll use other options.

No saying we shouldn't improve things, but it's not completely ridiculous.

grant1simons2
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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby grant1simons2 » February 19th, 2016, 9:18 pm

It just doesn't make much sense to me that something that takes double the time, costs more.

David Greene
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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby David Greene » February 20th, 2016, 2:38 am

It costs more to take a cruise, right?

grant1simons2
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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby grant1simons2 » February 20th, 2016, 11:29 am

You've kind of proved my point that rail travel has become a hobby way to travel.

A cruise is absolutely no where near comparable. A ton of amenities are included in your cost of a ticket.

The problem is that not too long ago a train from Stp to Chi costs around $60-$70 round trip. And that's the perfect cost for a train! A college student like me who wants to go somewhere by train finds it very difficult when the cheaper option is a plane. I love trains, and I want to support Amtrak as much as I can. But I'm also human and will like the cheaper option, especially when it's faster.

I doubt I'm the only one out there with this issue.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » February 20th, 2016, 1:28 pm

Airlines typically make multiple trips per day on any route, which lets them play with pricing a lot more. It's pretty rare for there to be only one round-trip flight per day -- I suspect that upwards of 4x daily round-trips is more typical. Most of Amtrak's network is restricted to one train per day per direction (a few are only 3-4 times per week). The higher number of flights per day allows airlines to much more effectively use dynamic pricing -- the average cost per passenger on a route across the entire day is probably on par with or higher than Amtrak charges, but Amtrak by definition has to be pricing things closer to the daily average. Comparing the lowest airline price for the day to what Amtrak is charging isn't entirely fair, though that's certainly the way the market is set up at the moment.

The larger number of daily flights also lets airlines play around with having some expensive routes and other cheap ones. The MSP to Chicago market is highly competitive, with multiple airlines competing to drive prices down. But there are other links feeding into these airports that are much more expensive. A round-trip for Chicago to Rochester, MN for your March 6th - March 12th dates is showing up as at least $334 for me on Orbitz right now. Chicago to La Crosse (which is on the Empire Builder route), $400.

Airlines often like to pair these more expensive flights with cheaper flights on trunk routes -- balancing things out behind the scenes, the average revenue per passenger for Minneapolis to Chicago is significantly bumped up, while the more expensive connecting flight has lower revenue per passenger than what we get by looking up the price for the individual link. They also have much more flexibility in adding and removing flights to account for seasonality or just the weekly cycle of travel.

If passenger trains had a denser network of routes and had better frequency of service, it would be easier to find cheaper fares, though they might also play similar games that the airlines do with trunk and connecting routes.

One issue I see with airlines is that the average travel distance keeps drifting upward year over year. I'm not entirely sure if this is because people are really going longer distances or if it's just a side-effect of more hub-based operations -- probably both. I'm not sure what the best way is to get this info anymore, but based on the trend back in 2004, the average flight stage length was about 700 miles, and it's probably up around 800 now.

That strikes me as really strange, since in my mind's eye, the distances people want to go probably follows something more like a Pareto distribution, with short trips being very common and the frequency of trips dropping off quickly as the distance gets longer. Airlines seem to be chasing the long end of the tail, even though there are much meatier opportunities at shorter distances.

This may be driven by the fact that airliners are very expensive to purchase. I wrote this article last year noting that airliners literally cost 10x as much per seat as trains do. There's not much reason for the operating costs to be spectacularly different, although I suspect Amtrak overstaffs their trains.

The Empire Builder is basically a rolling hotel, and there's some cost from that even for the coach passengers. The average number of passengers onboard the Empire Builder isn't all that high considering how big the train is. Doing some back-calculating, I estimated that in 2014, the Empire Builder averaged about 170 passengers onboard at any time (though this is across the entire year and the whole route). A typical double-decker Superliner in coach configuration has about 90 seats, so you could basically cram everyone into two cars -- but the standard consist is 11 or 12 cars (including a baggage car, sleeper cars, a diner car, a lounge/cafe car, and the coaches), not to mention two or three locomotives.

Anyway, it would be pretty easy to imagine a cheaper, more efficient train if we could get something running just on the Twin Cities - Chicago corridor and doesn't need to have sleepers or the deeply-pitched seats in the coach section for people traveling overnight. Airlines try to cram as many people in as they can. Amtrak could do a lot better if they fit more people per car and ran shorter trains, though there's certainly a limit before the seating is too tight and just as unpleasant as an airline.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Zaptons67 » February 20th, 2016, 1:36 pm

I agree, if they simply had free WIFI that would greatly improve the train experience. Be nice to be able to stream Netflix along the route. I really hope they have plans to start improving segments so they can start increasing train speeds in sections every year, that way the times will start to decrease. Getting times down to 6 hours would be nice to have within 6 years. It's also nice having the extra leg room on a train so you can also carry on more luggage and stuff. Trains are much more nicer than flying, so if you'd rather get there faster and fly in a tube crammed into a tight space have fun! I think trains make the travel more of a better experience. The price increases would be less of a concern IF they were showing more progress in how they plan on improving the segment quickly. Still I'd rather pay a bit more and take an extra afternoon and enjoy my trip not worrying about security, and a cramped flight and potential delays in a hot airplane. When I ride the train the temp is always a bit too chilly which is always nice napping if you got a jacket or a little blanket.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby David Greene » February 20th, 2016, 1:51 pm

As long as Amtrak continues to basically invest only in the NEC, our shared vision isn't going to become a reality.

I mean, does the Builder even have frickin' outlets yet?!?!

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mplsjaromir » February 20th, 2016, 2:30 pm

Different priorities can make a difference. For a weekend trip where all you need is a carry on and a personal item the airline trip is less expensive. If you need two pieces of luggage then Amtrak is less. Also you can bring you own beverages onboard Amtrak. In a few years that might be of interest to a certain forum member. I almost housed a twelver on an Amtrak ride from Milwaukee years back. That would be very expensive on a American Airlines, very illegal if I was driving.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » February 20th, 2016, 3:43 pm

David Greene wrote:As long as Amtrak continues to basically invest only in the NEC, our shared vision isn't going to become a reality.

I mean, does the Builder even have frickin' outlets yet?!?!
Yes, there are outlets these days. The Superliner coaches have been getting them as they've gone through more recent refurbishment cycles.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby talindsay » February 20th, 2016, 6:07 pm

grant1simons2 wrote:It just doesn't make much sense to me that something that takes double the time, costs more.
You're not wrong, but I think it depends on what you're prioritizing. For me, if I have the time I'll take Amtrak over flying: sure, it takes longer, and it may be more expensive, but the normal passenger on Amtrak is better than first class on those crappy flights from Minneapolis to Chicago. It's comfortable, you can walk around, you don't have have all your stuff packed up and put away for half the trip, you don't have to pay for baggage, your bags are available during the trip if you want them, there's no security theater hassle to deal with, you don't have to wear a seat belt, and you arrive in downtown Chicago.

Further, at least for me I can't really imagine flying to Chicago intentionally - I've never flown from MSP to Chicago when Chicago was my destination and I had the choice. It's a phenomenal hassle for the distance. Am I objectively wrong? Probably. But it's close enough that driving makes more sense to me, and so Amtrak isn't competing with a plane - it's competing with my car. So whether it makes more sense to drive or take the train depends entirely on what I'm doing, where I'm going, and what my timeline looks like. If it's just me, the train usually wins - factor in gas, having to concentrate for six hours each way, the cost of parking in Chicago, and the fact that it doesn't make sense to drive for trips within Chicago anyway, and the train is generally cheaper, as long as I can spare the time for the inflexible schedule. With a second daily train, it would win even more often when it's just me. But with the family, it pretty much always makes more sense to drive even with those costs, unless we're staying in Chicago proper for a lot of nights of parking. $50/night parking adds up fast, but with three people's train fares to balance it adds up a bit less fast.

Finally, specifically to the group on Amtrak vs. airplane, on Amtrak you can sit around a table, talk, play games, drink, eat, have a nice time, with lots of bags and stuff along, all for a much lower total cost than sitting cramped in forward-facing seats on an airplane.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Didier » February 20th, 2016, 6:20 pm

Of course some people will make a point to take the train regardless, but clearly a mode of transportation that is as expensive and as slow as Grant describes is ultimately a loser.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Archiapolis » February 22nd, 2016, 8:19 am

Zaptons67 wrote:I agree, if they simply had free WIFI that would greatly improve the train experience. Be nice to be able to stream Netflix along the route. I really hope they have plans to start improving segments so they can start increasing train speeds in sections every year, that way the times will start to decrease. Getting times down to 6 hours would be nice to have within 6 years. It's also nice having the extra leg room on a train so you can also carry on more luggage and stuff. Trains are much more nicer than flying, so if you'd rather get there faster and fly in a tube crammed into a tight space have fun! I think trains make the travel more of a better experience. The price increases would be less of a concern IF they were showing more progress in how they plan on improving the segment quickly. Still I'd rather pay a bit more and take an extra afternoon and enjoy my trip not worrying about security, and a cramped flight and potential delays in a hot airplane. When I ride the train the temp is always a bit too chilly which is always nice napping if you got a jacket or a little blanket.
This goes back to my original question. I'm not a math guy but there is a qualitative comparison equation here that involves time, cost, amenities and comfort.

I think you are getting close to the sweet spot with 6 hours + free wifi, cost equivalent to a flight to Chicago.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mulad » April 23rd, 2016, 7:52 am

This is from over a week ago, but there's now Amtrak Thruway bus (er, van) service from Rochester to St. Paul Union Depot. Amtrak contracted with the company that operates the GO Rochester Direct airport shuttle to add it. They've operated the La Crosse to Rochester shuttle for quite a while.

http://www.twincities.com/2016/04/12/am ... rochester/

Looking at Amtrak's website, this shaves off a couple hours for anyone going to or coming from western cities on the route -- westbound passengers depart Rochester at 7:15 pm vs. 4:55 pm for going via La Crosse, and eastbound travelers arrive in Rochester at about 10:30 am rather than 2:00 pm.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby HiawathaGuy » May 16th, 2016, 4:09 pm

2nd rail line to Chicago gaining steam
http://finance-commerce.com/2016/05/2nd ... ing-steam/
*LOCKED*

I thought Empire Builder ran on diesel? :o

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mattaudio » May 17th, 2016, 9:33 am

No, The Empire Builder runs on the Minnesota welfare dollars of "people from Chicago" coming to pick up their checks. Which could be redirected to fix every interchange and build a full second beltway around the Twin Cities ending congestion once and for all.

I learned that in the Star Tribune comments section.

grant1simons2
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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby grant1simons2 » May 17th, 2016, 10:16 am

A tweet from Finance & Commerce said it could be ready by 2020 :|

David Greene
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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby David Greene » May 17th, 2016, 11:12 am

WTF

This is why people hate government.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby twincitizen » May 17th, 2016, 11:14 am

Why exactly would it require $95MM in infrastructure improvements to add another train between St. Paul and Chicago?

This info may already be widely known, but the article also states that only St. Paul to Chicago is being moved forward at this time. Extensions to Mpls (Target Field) and St. Cloud could be considered in the future. This makes the most sense to get the 2nd train running ASAP for as few dollars as possible.

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby mattaudio » May 17th, 2016, 11:16 am

Indeed... We have pop-up funding for redundant interchanges in Perham, we have pop-up funding for suburb-to-suburb transit pilots... but after all these years we can't get funding for a second Chicago rail frequency that would surely be a hit?

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Re: Amtrak Empire Builder and Intercity Rail to Chicago

Postby Silophant » May 17th, 2016, 11:27 am

Yeah, if they aren't having to do improvements to Target Field and St. Cloud stations, I don't understand what the capital expense is besides the additional trainsets.


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